The Fight for Fossil Fuel Divestment Rests in Limbo at Concordia

After Université Laval Divested Last Year, Concordia is Still Behind

Graphic Chris Michaud.

Divest Concordia has been pressuring the school to sell its investments in fossil fuel industries since 2013. Years of negotiations later, it remains clear the school won’t be conceding to the group’s demands, at least not in the immediate future.

More than ever, it seems like Concordia would rather sweep things under the rug than face the political roadblocks to fossil fuel divestment. In other words, It’s not yet fashionable to divest.

Those pushing for fossil fuel divestment hope to see institutions remove their stocks, bonds, or investments in the fossil fuel industry, so the institutions’ collective impact on climate change can be reduced.

Last February, Université Laval became the first Canadian university to divest from fossil fuels. No other Canadian universities have followed suit.

The Concordia University Foundation makes investments with funds donated to the school, and uses the returns to fund research, scholarships, and bursaries. An estimated 5 to 10 per cent of the university’s $165 million foundation is currently invested in fossil fuels, said president of the foundation Bram Freedman.

After the creation of Divest Concordia, the school tried to address students’ demands by forming the Joint Sustainable Investment Advisory Committee in 2015. The aim of the group is to give investment recommendations to the university’s foundation. But that’s all the group can do: Advise the board of directors of the foundation.

“That’s the closest that students can actually get to talking about what’s happening with the endowment fund,” said Emily Carson-Apstein, who organizes with Divest Concordia and is the external and campaigns coordinator of Sustainable Concordia. Even at that, she said, students are a minority on the committee.

“It’s very many steps removed.”

JSIAC consists of one student representative from Divest Concordia, one student from the undergraduate level, one part-time and full-time faculty representative, and three members from the board of Concordia’s foundation. It’s unclear, though, what happens in their meetings since until recently members have not been allowed to disclose what’s discussed.

Carson-Apstein said no financial changes have come out of JSIAC. “From [2015] until now it’s been about the same on the negotiation front.”

Students in JSIAC don’t get to come to the foundation’s board meetings, and rarely meet with the foundation face-to-face. Instead representatives from the foundation relay their suggestions back to the foundation’s board, but Carson-Apstein said this process makes it hard for student representatives to gauge how the foundation is responding to their demands.

In 2014, $5 million from the foundation was set aside for sustainable investments, but Carson-Apstein said the school seems unwilling to set more aside. And with an infrequent number of meetings per year, it’s no surprise students feel like they’re being stonewalled.

From Concordia’s perspective, things are going well.

“The Concordia foundation is taking a real leadership role in Canada in terms of responsible investing,” said Freedman, who also sits on the JSIAC as the main liaison between student representatives and the board of the foundation.

“We’ve come quite a long way in terms of being the first Canadian University to set up a sustainable investment fund, to joining the [Principles for Responsible Investment network], to looking at impact investing, to increasing our reporting transparency,” he said. “It’s been quite a shift in the last three to four years.”

While the foundation has pushed back against fossil fuel divestment, changes have been made in other areas. In October, the board of the foundation adopted a responsible investment action plan.

As part of that action plan, the foundation joined the the Principles for Responsible Investment network in January, a global network of investors backed by the United Nations whose mission is to reshape the financial system so it would “reward long-term, responsible investment and benefit the environment and society as a whole.”

Even with the new action plan, Freedman said the board won’t be looking to negatively screen against certain industries.

“I do not expect that we will come up with a list of products or industries that we would not invest in, for the whole foundation’s assets,” he said.

“I do not expect that we will come up with a list of products or industries that we would not invest in, for the whole foundation’s assets.” – Bram Freedman

When asked whether the school has investments in weapons or tobacco industries, Freedman answered: “There may be.”

What’s Happening Behind Closed Doors?

As part of the foundation’s promise for responsible investments, pledges have been made to make the foundation’s operations more transparent to the public.This year, the foundation’s board said they’ll be releasing a summary of their investments, and that efforts will also be made to make JSIAC’s operations more open.

Since its inception, JSIAC has been run under a guise of secrecy, Carson-Apstein said.

The minutes, times and places of the meetings aren’t public, and committee membership isn’t either. Those attending the meetings aren’t allowed to record what’s discussed, and until recently, student representatives have been advised to not disclose anything discussed in the meetings to the public or the media.

“I get it, I know there’s been a sense of frustration because the groups that they represent don’t know what’s going on, and then they think nothing is going on,” said Freedman.

In light of this criticism, the board of the foundation has agreed to release summaries of each of their meetings, but Carson-Apstein remains critical, since it’s ultimately the foundation’s representatives who decide what stays private and what goes out.

Hoping Divestment Doesn’t Go Forgotten

Fossil fuel divestment was one of the Concordia Student Union campaigns last year, but student campaigns are constantly in flux. What’s in vogue one year is discarded when a new CSU team gets elected and old executives leave.

But divestment isn’t something that usually happens in one year, Carson-Apstein said; it takes years of continued effort, and right now it looks like the school is banking on the hope students will just forget about the whole thing.

“They know that if they stall for four years most of the people who are causing trouble now will have moved on,” said Carson-Apstein.

At McGill there’s been a complete rejection of students’ demands of divestment from fossil fuels, and so the direct action approach that comes with disrupting board meetings and holding protests is a more logical option for them, Carson-Apstein said. But at Concordia, many students hope to appear more reasonable so negotiations with the school can go more smoothly, she continued.

With that struggle in mind, a new group out of Sustainable Concordia has formed called the Sustainable Investing Project.

“I think we recognized that Divest Concordia, which is one of our two campaigns, had stalled a little bit in terms of how the JSIAC committee was moving,” explained Mauricio Buschinelli, project leader and Sustainable Concordia’s finance coordinator. “We felt like the committee was basically buying time and not really generating any meaningful discussion.”

The new group’s main purpose is to give sustainable investment advice to organizations that approach them for help, and to expand students’ knowledge of sustainable investments, equipping them with the tools they’ll need to keep pushing institutions—inside or outside of Concordia—to divest.

“We wanted to focus more on building the knowledge level of the community as a whole,” Buschinelli said.

Since the project has only been running since the summer, the group is still establishing itself by reaching out to fee-levy groups on campus. Its broader goal is to work with organizations all around Montreal, and to release a guide on sustainable investments so those in divestment movements can move past advocacy to offer solutions instead.